The 13 Middot: God Is Ethical and So Are We

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 2:51pm -- Clergy

The special Torah reading for Chol HaMo-eid Pesach, the intermediate Sabbath of Passover, is Exodus 33:12-34:26, which includes the “13 Middot” (Exodus 34:6-7) or “Attributes of God.” Maimonides, following the early midrashic work, Sifrei, argued that the section would be better known as the 13 d’rachim, “ways” of God: or, better still, ways that we can embrace to be god-like since “knowing” God is not really possible either from the perspective of Judaism’s radical monotheism or, for that matter, from the perspective of most branches of philosophy. Thus, proponents both of positive and negative theology turn to Exodus 34:6-7 to ground themselves in a viable Jewish theology of God.

The place of the 13 Attributes in the text of the Torah is important. They appear just after the story of the Golden Calf. Seeing what the people have done in his absence, Moses smashes the first set of tablets. Punishment is then exacted upon the guilty Levites and a general plague serves as a further scourge among the people. Only then does Moses go back up Mt Sinai and cut a second set of tablets. The Eternal One, the Torah reports, passes before Moses and proclaims (according to the prayer book version of the passage): “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon” (Mishkan T’filah, [NY: CCAR, 2007], p. 496).

What is most remarkable about this passage is its emphasis on the ethical. God is not called holy or commanding or jealous. Instead, God self-describes as first and foremost, an ethical being. In fact, it would be even more accurate to call God in this passage “the Ethical Being” or, perhaps, the ethical ground of all being. The God of the Middot is also a universal God, with a universal set of behavioral norms for all people. The God of the Middot does not self-describe as the God who took the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt but rather as a God for all people who need to strive to be like God in order to fulfill their nature as having been created in the image of the One and only God. Perhaps that is why in one midrash, the God of the second tablets is depicted as self-enclosed in a tallit “like a prayer leader” to maintain some Jewish specificity in this important passage.

Early in its development, the Reform Movement made the argument that the essence of Judaism was ethical. Ritual, ethnicity, mystical experience, and alike were downgraded. Judaism was an ethical monotheism that believed in the Golden Rule, the pursuit of justice and humility. The prophets were hailed as ethicists and social activists. Their nationalism was downgraded or ignored. Kabbalah was dismissed as irrational and superstitious. Judaism, to use the language of the day, was all about the “Fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man.”

To a large extent, the Reform Movement’s reinterpretation of Judaism as ethical monotheism was based on a select reading of the German idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who actually was highly critical of much of organized religion. Like Kant, leaders of the movement believed in ethics as a matter of duty. Unlike Kant, they remained, for the most part, fully theistic and convinced that the Jews remained the Chosen People to lead the world to salvation through morality. One dissident, Felix Adler, son of Reform Rabbi Samuel Adler, rejected both God and Jewish peoplehood, and seized on morality alone, founding the Ethical Culture Society in 1876.

Later in the 19th century, the study of Kant’s philosophy was revitalized by Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). The son of a cantor, Cohen had studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau to become a rabbi before shifting to the study of philosophy. Ultimately, he combined both interests and became of the one most important modern philosophers of Judaism. 

In 1873, Cohen was invited to teach at the University of Marburg. Three years later he was promoted to full professor and remained there until 1912. A respected teacher and prolific author, Cohen transformed Marburg into the center of Neo-Kantian Studies. Like Moses Mendelssohn before him, Cohen quickly became involved in the intellectual defense of Judaism. First, in 1879, he responded to attacks by the historian and nationalist, Heinreich von Treitschke, who claimed that Jews refused to assimilate into Germans. He also denounced the immigration of East European Jews to Germany. For his part, Cohen believed deeply in the compatibility of Judaism and German culture.

Four years later, Cohen was called to testify in a lawsuit against an anti-Semitic teacher who claimed that Jews were bound by the Torah and the Talmud to treat other Jews in an ethical fashion but were permitted by Judaism to defraud non-Jews. Cohen refuted the charge, and argued that God and the Jews “loved the stranger” and that the ultimate goal of Judaism was the unity of all humanity as a reflection of the unity of the one God. Judaism, Cohen taught, believed that man and woman were co-workers in the work of Creation.

In 1912, Cohen moved to Berlin where he taught at the Reform rabbinic seminary or the Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism. There he worked on one of his most important books, Religion of Reason from the Sources of Judaism, published in 1919, where he further demonstrated the interconnections of Judaism and Kantian moral philosophy. Cohen’s work directly influenced the subsequent thinking of Leo Baeck, the leading German Reform Rabbi of the 20th century; Franz Rosenzweig, a leading figure in modern Jewish philosophy; and Martin Buber, the author of I and Thou, one of the most important religious texts of modern times. Like his teacher, Rosenzweig rejected Zionism as being contrary to Judaism’s universalistic messianic hope for humanity, whereas both Baeck and Buber found ways to embrace Jewish nationalism. Joseph B. Soloveichik (1903-1993), one of America’s leading Orthodox rabbis of the 20th century and a leading professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, was also profoundly influenced by Hermann Cohen.

Today, it is important to see Hermann Cohen as the intellectual bridge connecting the “ethical” and the “monotheistic” in contemporary Reform Judaism. This is true with respect not only to our personal ethics, but also to social ethics and the program that we call tikkun olam. Although that title is borrowed from mystical sources, it is very much rooted in Judaism’s prophetic quest and reflects the ethical-religious teachings of Herman Cohen.

Perhaps Cohen himself said it best when he declared that “I cannot love God without devoting my whole heart as living for the sake of my fellow-men, without devoting my entire soul as responsive to all the spiritual trends in the world around me, without devoting all my force to this God in His correlation with man” (Louis P. Pojman, Michael Rea, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology [Stanford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015], p. 58). How can we achieve this lofty goal? Perhaps by rereading the 13 Middot in this week’s Torah portion and making them our path on earth as individuals and as part of the sacred, covenantal Jewish community.